The Joy of Stats
The brainy, numbers-crunching Jewish fans who’ve revolutionized pro sports and realized every geek fan’s dream are celebrated as heroes at the annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference
“It’s outsiders,” Gladwell added, “people who have nothing to do with the teams, creating their own version of reality, reordering our understanding of who’s good and who’s not in a really radical way.” However, as the conference visibly demonstrated, the outsiders are no longer exclusively outside. Spurred by the statistical revolution in sports analysis that began in baseball, fans with no background in sports are becoming sports professionals, and these professionals are turning to those disciplines that were previously rigidly segmented from sports—business, math, finance, psychology, even wit—in the search of a slight edge. Mark Cuban can be confounding if you are locked into the old paradigm of the benign old-boys-club owner, or even the paradigm of the Steinbrenner-esque madman. But in this new era, he makes sense. The next time you see Cuban high-fiving his players behind the bench or mouthing-off about the officiating, just think of him as what he is: the world’s biggest Mavs fan.
Sports have always been one of the primary avenues through which Jews (mainly Jewish men) have managed their acculturation into American life. The 1930s and ’40s saw American Jewish athletes like baseball slugger Hank Greenberg, star quarterback Sid Luckman, and boxer Barney Ross become national heroes and symbols of Jewish social acceptance and ethnic pride. However, subsequent elevations of class status led Jews to perceive athletic performance as a base pursuit to be shunted aside in favor of those professions that, well, Jewish mothers urge their boys to pursue. This happened for a few generations. Then, sometime over the past few decades, Jews did even better for themselves than their mothers could have ever possibly hoped for, and as they looked around, wondering what to do with this surplus time and money and expertise, they turned to sports. Unlike other rising ethnic groups, such as the Irish and the Italians and, in a different way, the African-Americans, who continued to have athletic heroes to identify with and take pride in even as the more maternally driven members of their tribes achieved mainstream success, Jews saw sports as a purely leisure-time activity and saw themselves as spectators rather than athletes. So, they set about creating this new fandom in order to utilize during their leisure hours the same education and work ethic and angular creativity and intellectual brawn that had helped them attain material success (and please their mothers).
Of the figures who have made the biggest difference over the past half-century in advancing the professionalization of the fan (and the fan-ification of professional sports), nearly all were Jews. Strat-O-Matic—essentially a video game before video games (or videos), in which players played nine innings of baseball with the same iron statistics that prevailed on the diamond prevailing at home around the kitchen table and rolls of dice substituting for the day-to-day luck of actual players—was created by Hal Richman, a member of the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. Fantasy sports, both as a concept generally and as a specific game—in which you assemble a group of players and your friend assembles his own group of players and the winner is the person whose group produces superior statistics that week, or that season—was invented by Daniel Okrent, who would become the first public editor of the New York Times, and a group of other writer types over lunch in midtown Manhattan. Many, many years later, after sabermetrics had been invented, a die-hard Boston Red Sox fan named Theo Epstein emerged from Yale to become his favorite team’s general manager before he was 30. In 2004, Epstein was the first sabermetric-savvy GM to preside over a championship (not to mention the first Red Sox GM to preside over a championship since 1918). The NBA has arguably the most stats-happy ownership, led by Cuban. The best statistical analyzer of football is Football Outsiders, an outfit founded by Aaron Schatz. For a while, baseball’s leading sabermetrician was arguably Baseball Prospectus’ Silver—who, he told me, is actually only half-Jewish—until he decamped to become everyone’s favorite elections-predicting guru; now it is probably Phil Birnbaum, an independent sabermetrician. For years, Ken Tremendous—the nom de blog of Michael Schur, a writer for The Office and now Parks and Recreation—fought the battle for advanced stats on a totally different front, using his hilarious and sadly defunct blog, Fire Joe Morgan, to belittle those who, like its namesake, refused to accept the obvious superiority of the statistically savvy way of viewing things.
There are only two important characters in this story who aren’t Jewish. Billy Beane, Moneyball’s main subject, the first person to bring advanced stats to any major sports team’s front office, is the exception that proves the rule because he is not a fan or former fan, but a former player—one of the jocks. Beane was driven to look for players who help teams in ways that other franchises hadn’t figured out yet—specifically, guys whose lean batting averages and dumpy physiques masked brilliant on-base percentages and above-average defensive skills. (Beane was an average-to-below-average player.) The other crucial link is Bill James, who is simply an exception. Roughly three decades ago, he began writing obsessive prospectuses in which he invented sabermetrics, igniting, with his acrobatic intellect and charismatic prose, the stats revolution.
As a brief example, take the Tampa Bay Rays. In the past few years, the team has become the toast of baseball’s most forward-thinking fans and professionals through its use of innovative analytics; the Rays are the subject of a new book by Jonah Keri (also of Baseball Prospectus, also Jewish) called The Extra 2%—as in, if you manage a baseball team really wisely, you can score an additional 2 percent return on your investment. The three front-office guys who came to Florida after the team’s dismal 2004 season were used to thinking in terms of investments and returns, having, as Keri puts it in his book, “landed in baseball straight from jobs on Wall Street” at firms like Goldman Sachs and Bear Stearns; the new owner had started, like Cuban—author of the book’s foreword—as a tech entrepreneur. The owner is Stuart Sternberg; the two financial wizards he brought with him to run the team—which is to say, to create the superb farm system, implement the innovative on-field strategies, and sign the hugely advantageous contracts that allowed the team with the American League’s lowest payroll to represent that league in the 2008 World Series—were Matt Silverman and Andrew Friedman.
There is a depressing moment near the end of Keri’s book, which was published last month. It is the winter of 2010, 18 months after the Rays (payroll $43.8 million) finished the 2008 season with the league’s second-best record and then defeated two differently colored Sox, one from Chicago (payroll $121.2 million) and one from Boston (payroll $133.4 million) before going down in five games to the Philadelphia Phillies (payroll $98.3 million) in the World Series. The next year had gone differently, with the New York Yankees (payroll north of $200 million) duly winning the American League East and the World Series and the Red Sox securing the wild card spot. That extra 2 percent will only get you so much when you are investing one-third what your competitors are, especially when your competitors also try to imitate your successful strategies. In Keri’s book, Silverman finds himself at a panel at last year’s Sloan Conference and, spying a nearby Red Sox jersey, grabs it. “They’re always looming,” he tells the crowd.
The conference is where one goes to try to maintain the 2 percent advantage. “There’s always going to be additional ways to analyze things,” said Jessica Gelman, who co-founded and co-chairs the conference with the Rockets’ Morey. Gelman is vice president of customer marketing and strategy for the Kraft Sports Group—which is to say, the New England Patriots. Which is to say: She’s a genius. She is also tall and attractive, with curly dark-blonde hair and a look that communicates that she cares what you’re talking about, but—you’ll have to excuse her—there are also four other things she has to think about, too. At Harvard she played point guard, and they won a couple of Ivy League titles, she told me in her laid-back Gen X lilt. Later, she played for a year in Israel’s professional women’s basketball league. Which is to say: Jessica Gelman is awesome.
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